An Arms Deal Won’t Heal What Ails Muhammadu Buhari
Nigeria’s president is trying to prove he can get from Washington what his predecessor couldn’t, but it might not be enough to get him re-elected.
By Max Siollun
| May 11, 2018, 7:04 AM
U.S. President Donald Trump and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrive for a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 30, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The septuagenarian presidents of Nigeria and the United States held a much-publicized meeting at the White House on April 30. The two countries are trying to patch things up after their biggest ever row. During the tenure of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, relations deteriorated to their lowest level ever, culminating with the U.S. refusal to sell Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria in 2015 to aid the country’s fight against the terrorist group Boko Haram. The spat, which arose due to U.S. concerns about alleged human rights abuses by the Nigerian army, prompted Nigerian accusations that the United States was a false friend that had failed to help Nigeria in its moment of crisis.
But personal priorities have driven the most recent round of diplomacy. For Nigeria’s embattled president, Muhammadu Buhari, it was an opportunity to escape domestic criticism and pressure and demonstrate to voters that he has kept Nigeria’s partnership with the United States intact. For U.S. President Donald Trump, meeting with the president of Africa’s most populous country was an excellent chance for him to contain the furor after his infamous comments referring to African nations as “shithole countries” and to counter accusations that he does not care about the continent.
Buhari defeated Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election based on his image as a military “ironman” who could simultaneously fight corruption and security threats. But Buhari’s claim in December 2015 that “technically we have won the war” against Boko Haram has repeatedly come back to haunt him.
Buhari’s claim in December 2015 that “technically we have won the war” against Boko Haram has repeatedly come back to haunt him.
Nearly two and a half years after Buhari’s “mission accomplished” moment, the Islamist terrorist group still carries out suicide bombings, ambushes army convoys, and kidnaps schoolgirls. The threat from Boko Haram and other sources of communal violence has become so widespread that the Nigerian chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai, admitted that the army is deployed on various security operations in 32 of Nigeria’s 36 states.
Buhari’s popularity has plummeted, and his critics have gotten tougher. In January, former President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote a public letter in which he urged Buhari to “dismount from the horse” and retire from office. With Nigeria’s next presidential election less than a year away, the vultures are circling around Buhari. The biggest danger to Buhari’s re-election bid may ironically lie within his own party.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a key financier of Buhari’s 2015 campaign, has defected to the opposition People’s Democratic Party. Additionally, both Senate President Bukola Saraki and House Speaker Yakubu Dogara have bad blood with the leadership of Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party. Many APC members view Saraki and Dogara as a fifth column inside the party. Opponents have also questioned whether a man of Buhari’s age (he is 75) and with his poor health record is strong enough to be the president of a tumultuous country like Nigeria. On his way back from Washington, he made a “technical stopover” in London and met with his medical doctor there. Last year, Buhari spent three months abroad in London for treatment for an illness he has refused to disclose.
Buhari needs a political boost if he is going to have a shot at re-election. The meeting with Trump, and the United States’ recent decision to sell Super Tucano fighter jets to Nigeria, allows Buhari to show voters at home that he has repaired a broken relationship
The meeting with Trump, and the United States’ recent decision to sell Super Tucano fighter jets to Nigeria, allows Buhari to show voters at home that he has repaired a broken relationship
and that his own skills have achieved deals with Washington that his predecessor couldn’t produce.
Yet Buhari needs the Tucano deal more than his country does. This deal amounts to toys for the boys, bolstering Buhari’s image, rather than being a gamechanger in the war against Boko Haram. Indeed, Nigeria is getting the right equipment but at the wrong time.
Tucano jets would have had more impact four years ago, when Boko Haram was attacking and occupying Nigerian territory like a conventional army, rather than today, when its preferred method of attack is to send little girls into mosques and crowded markets on suicide bombing missions. The Tucanos will not stop suicide bombings, nor will they stop the clashes between farmers and herdsmen that are Nigeria’s next security headache.
Apart from the personal victories, the reset in U.S.-Nigerian relations also demonstrates how much the relationship between the two nations has changed over the past decade. Oil was the traditional sweetener of choice in Nigeria’s business deals. Nigeria used to export 1.31 million barrels of crude oil per day to the United States in 2006. By February of this year, its oil exports to the United States had plummeted by 71 percent to just 369,000 barrels per day as America has become reliant on its own oil production and less dependent on oil imports from abroad. Nigerian Oil Minister Ibe Kachikwu publicly admitted that the era when the United States was a primary export market for Nigeria “is gone.”
Although their relationship is no longer about oil, the United States and Nigeria still need each other.
Although their relationship is no longer about oil, the United States and Nigeria still need each other.
Nigeria has Africa’s largest economy and population. Trump wants Nigeria to remove trade barriers and give U.S. companies greater access to Nigeria’s large, young population of almost 200 million, many of whom love foreign goods and more than half of whom are under 30. While the United States erected red tape around deals thanks to the Nigerian army’s alleged human rights abuses, Chinese companies — with no such scruples — have been busy investing and building roads and train lines in Nigeria.
Members of Buhari’s delegation met with large U.S. companies, including Boeing and General Electric, during the Washington trip. Boeing is interested in Nigeria’s plans to resuscitate its national airline, and GE is part of a consortium that agreed to a $2 billion railway development project in Nigeria. These meetings are a chance for U.S. companies to avoid ceding further ground to China.
But the relationship, always unsteady, is not out of the woods. And even Buhari’s much-touted arms deal is causing friction. Nigeria’s minister of defense, retired Army Brig. Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali, protested the stringent conditions that Washington attached to the sale of the Tucano jets. The jets will not be delivered until 2020, and Nigerian officers will be barred from maintaining them, examining their architecture, or from being trained by U.S. personnel.
Dan-Ali was so outraged by these conditions that he vowed not to pay for the jets unless the U.S. conditions are relaxed. The inexplicably high cost of the Tucano jets (almost $500 million), and the fact that Buhari agreed to their purchase without approval from the National Assembly, also led some senators to call for his impeachment. With the deal under such close scrutiny, what seemed like a much-needed Band-Aid for U.S.-Nigerian relations could prove painful if it gets torn off.
Buhari’s unwillingness to disclose the nature or extent of his illness fuels rumors that he is terminally ill or, periodically, that he has already died. Last month, Garba Shehu, a spokesman for the president, was forced to issue a series of tweets denying that anything unpleasant happened to the president. He added that reports of Buhari’s ill health are “plain lies spread by vested interests to create panic.” Buhari’s wife recently tweeted that his health is “not as bad as it’s being perceived.”
Regardless of the severity of his illness, Buhari’s extended absence risks igniting an ugly power struggle that would threaten not just the political fortunes of his ruling party but also a long observed gentleman’s agreement that has been critical to maintaining the stability of the country.
The unwritten power-sharing agreement obliges the country’s major parties to alternate the presidency between northern and southern officeholders every eight years. It was consolidated during Nigeria’s first two democratic transfers of power — in 1999 and 2007 — and it alleviated the southern secessionist pressures that had festered under decades of military rule by dictators from the north. For a time, this mechanism for alternating power helped keep the peace in a country with hundreds of different ethnic groups and more than 500 different languages. But it was never intended to be permanent, and as Buhari’s illness demonstrates, it has increasingly become a source of tension rather than consensus.
If Buhari, a northerner, doesn’t finish his term of office, and power passes to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian from the south, it will be the second time in seven years that the north’s “turn” in the presidency has been cut short. In late 2009, then-President Umaru Yar’Adua, who like Buhari was a Muslim from the north, traveled abroad for treatment for an undisclosed illness. When Yar’Adua died in office the following year, his southern Christian vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, succeeded him, setting the stage for an acrimonious split within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) over whether Jonathan should merely finish out Yar’Adua’s term or run to retain the office in the 2011 election.
In the end, Jonathan ran and won in 2011. But not before 800 people were killed in riots in the north after the PDP allowed Jonathan to contest the election. The anti-Jonathan faction later resigned in protest and defected to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party. Buhari led the APC to victory over the PDP in 2015.
An eerily similar scenario is now playing out in Buhari’s APC party. If Buhari dies, resigns, or is declared medically incapacitated by the cabinet, it would likely ignite a similar struggle within the APC over whether Vice President Osinbajo should permanently succeed him as president. A group of prominent northerners has already stated that Osinbajo should serve merely as an interim president and that he cannot replace Buhari on the ticket in the 2019 presidential election. Should Osinbajo succeed Buhari, win the 2019 election, and serve a full term, a Christian southerner will have been president for 18 of the 24 years since Nigeria transitioned to democracy in 1999.
There is a chance that APC leaders will convince — or force — Osinbajo to stand down in favor of another Muslim candidate from the north. But sidelining Osinbajo would pose other sectarian risks. He was chosen as Buhari’s running mate in part to counter southern accusations that the APC is a Muslim party. And although he is seen as a technocrat, Osinbajo is a powerful political force in his own right — too powerful, perhaps, to be sidelined in 2019 without alienating millions of voters. He is a pastor in the country’s largest evangelical church, which has some 6 million members, and his wife is the granddaughter of Obafemi Awolowo, one of Nigeria’s early independence politicians who is beloved in southwest Nigeria.
Yet if the north’s “turn” in power is interrupted again, it will further alienate the region — already home to the bloody Boko Haram insurgency, which has thrived in part because of government neglect — and make north-south cooperation on security, development, and a host of other critical issues more difficult. It could easily lead to another round of deadly riots, as it did in 2011. But there is a way out.
Nigeria should abandon the convention of north-south presidential power rotation now that it has outlived its purpose. At the same time, it should deepen power sharing in state and local governments, which have steadily gained influence relative to the national government since 1999. Many of the country’s 36 states and 774 local governments already practice some form of power rotation among politicians from different ethnic, religious, and geographic groups. The key will be to frame the abolition of power rotation at the presidential level as an opportunity to strengthen these norms at the state and local levels — not a chance to terminate them everywhere at once.
The reality is that most Nigerians experience government at the local level anyway. Regardless of whether Buhari or Osinbajo is in the presidential palace, state and local officials have the most purchase on the lives of ordinary citizens. Letting go of a dangerous convention at the national level while devolving more power to inclusive governance structures at the local level offers a way out of the current impasse.
Today is the 26th anniversary of the April 1990 coup attempt against General Babangida in Nigeria. Rather than rehash the events (which I have written about before) in this post, I have instead included links where you can read all about the coup in an account by one of its plotters, and another view of the coup by General Babangida’s former Chief Security Officer.
That coup was a watershed in Nigeria, and accelerated the turn of events that led to the insurgency in the Niger Delta, and indirectly to the controversy that followed the June 12, 1993 election annulment, and the “power shift” to the south in 1999.
If you want to read more about the Orkar coup and these tumultuous years, you can of course do so in my book “Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993)“.
Have a great weekend everyone.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Nigeria’s former military head of state General Murtala Muhammed. He was assassinated on February 13, 1976, on his way to work during an abortive coup. Full details of Murtala’s life and the events that led to his death are in my book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture.
Murtala’s car was ambushed by a group of soldiers in Lagos and he was shot to death. Above is a photo of the bullet riddled car in which he was killed. Note the bullet holes in the windscreen.
US State Department Report on Murtala Muhammed: https://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/us-state-department-report-on-murtala-muhammed/
Murtala Muhammed’s speech on Nigerian democracy: https://www.facebook.com/157457414278806/videos/1851800698475/
The assassination of Murtala Muhammed:
Brigadier Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Speaks to the press about Coup Plot: https://www.facebook.com/157457414278806/videos/1849886570623/
Lt-Colonel Dimka speaks to the press: https://www.facebook.com/157457414278806/videos/1851800698475/
Lt-General Obasanjo announces execution of coup convicts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjEA83pgstg&list=PLTCNM3JtW0UlisCGV98STnBtiGoS7YTaZ&index=3
From Eagle Square in Abuja, Nigeria. A lot of “chatter” about Buhari’s new aide-de-camp (ADC) Lt-Colonel M. Lawal Abubakar (of the military police). People were curious about his white uniform and red cap. Incidentally a military police officer as ADC to the President gives a strong clue as to who is likely to be the next National Security Adviser or Minister of Defence under Buhari. It has been rumoured for a while that former Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Abdulrahaman Bello Dambazau would have a prominent role in Buhari’s government. Well, when he was in the army Dambazau served in…the military police (the same corps as Buhari’s new ADC)…
The military ceremony was led by the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the Brigade of Guards Master Warrant-Officer Kolo Aboko (under the command of the commander of the Brigade of Guards Brigadier-General Anthony Bamidele Omozeje). They presided over the handing over the ceremonial instruments of office (Nigerian flag and armed forces flag from former President Jonathan).
Buhari’s full inaugural speech: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2015/05/read-president-buhari-inaugural-speech/
A video report on the controversies of Buhari’s first tenure in government.
Outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan led president-elect Muhammadu Buhari on a tour of the presidential villa at Aso Rock in Abuja. Jonathan gave Buhari the presidential handover notes. Buhari was accompanied by his son and daughter.
APC: All Progressives Congress
APGA: All Progressives Grand Alliance
PDP: Peoples Democratic Party
STATE GOVERNOR PARTY Abia Okezie Ikpeazu PDP Adamawa Bindo Jibrilla APC Akwa Ibom Udom Emmanuel PDP Anambra Willie Obiano APGA Bauchi Muhammed Abubakar APC Bayelsa Henry Dickson PDP Benue Samuel Otom APC Borno Kashin Shettima APC Cross River Ben Ayade PDP Delta Ifeanyi Okowa PDP Ebonyi Dave Umahi PDP Edo Adams Oshiomole APC Ekiti Ayodele Fayose PDP Enugu Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi PDP Gombe Ibrahim Dankwambo PDP Imo Rochas Okorocha APC Jigawa Badaru Abubakar APC Kaduna Nasir El-Rufai APC Kano Umar Ganduje APC Kebbi Atiku Bagudu APC Kogi Yahaya Bello PDP Kwara Abdulfatah Ahmed APC Lagos Akinwuinmi Ambode APC Nasarawa Tanko Al-Makura APC Niger Abubakar Sani Bello APC Ogun Ibikunle Amosun APC Ondo Olusegun Mimiko PDP Osun Rauf Aregbesola APC Oyo Abiola Ajimobi APC Plateau Simon Bako Lalong APC Rivers Nyesom Wike PDP Sokoto Aminu Tambuwal APC Taraba Darius Ishaku PDP Yobe Ibrahim Geidam APC Zamfara Abdulaziz Abubakar APC